Collected answers to questions I get about music, part three: League Pass bands

This originally ran on and now runs on, my personal website. I am reposting this here due to a personal request.

  1. How can Anglo-Saxon Americans approach and appreciate international music, most notably African music?

I genuinely struggled with how to answer this for months, because there is no right answer. Even though I believe you can measure the quality of art without your own emotions involved (though not in a robotic way), I understand that taste is very real and I recognize that there are certain people open to listening to certain things and others who aren’t. That’s simply the way the world works.

So here’s my guide for expanding your horizons a bit beyond white people with beards in the United States or the United Kingdom. (Formerly.)

  • Search out recommendations from people you trust that know about these things. This is the best and easiest way to start for several reasons, and a major reason why people such as knowledgeable record store clerks are desperately needed right now. These people will understand what you’re looking for and direct you to stuff you’ll like, which will enable you to uncover more and more. I am not one of these people, as much as I’ve tried — I struggle with figuring people out musically. So I rely almost entirely on Robert Christgau and Jason Gubbels, who collectively have the two best pairs of ears when it comes to African and other international music.
  • Use the Internet. It really is this simple — search something like “good African music” and as long as you don’t click on a Putumayo compilation you’ll be headed in the right direction.
  • Spotify is your friend. It amazes me how many of the seemingly-obscure African albums this streaming service has ready for your enjoyment.
  • Keep an open mind. Something that sounds unnatural to you is very likely something you will not like in the first ten minutes you hear it, unless you have a major heart-to-heart connection that can only be topped by God himself.
  • Read about your subjects. African music is political by nature, and it’s always worth knowing if the songs you’re hearing are about subjects worth caring about. I can report that African music has a significantly higher batting average than American or European at this. Plus, the beats are dope.

2. Grantland’s (and now just Zach Lowe’s) NBA League Pass rankings are a joy to read and a nice summary of what teams are most fun to watch or be a fan of each season. What are bands or musicians that are unusually fun to listen to?

Shockingly, this is the most fun question I’ve answered thus far. Plus, it was very easy to find names! To quantify this, I considered the following criteria: rapidity of releases (do they release upwards of six albums in a decade? Awesome!), consistent quality, enjoyable listens, and accessibility. So this list will be very optimistic and happy-sounding — that’s much more accessible and listenable than sadness. I thought about also making sure they were currently active, but music is pretty definitely not as great on the whole as it used to be, so that got dropped. Some of these are, by nature, outdated. But I have a hell of a lot of fun when I hear them.

These are, of course, entirely my own opinion and more or less a bunch of my favorite musicians/bands. The reader will have different responses.

  • ABBA
  • Arcade Fire
  • Beastie Boys
  • Chance the Rapper
  • Charlie Parker
  • Cocteau Twins
  • David Bowie
  • Drive-By Truckers
  • Duke Ellington
  • Franco
  • Husker Du
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Kanye West
  • Kendrick Lamar
  • Laurie Anderson
  • M.I.A.
  • Miles Davis
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Ornette Coleman
  • Paul McCartney
  • Paul Simon
  • Pavement
  • Prince
  • Public Enemy
  • Pylon
  • Sonic Youth
  • Sonny Rollins
  • Spoon
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Talking Heads
  • Taylor Swift
  • The Go! Team
  • The Replacements
  • Vampire Weekend
  • Yo La Tengo

3. What differentiates extended successes from one-hit wonders?

This comes from my friend JL, who I do the Highland Ave. Raps podcast with. He mostly focused this query to me on the hip-hop and rap side of things in wondering how someone like a Kanye West or a Beyonce hangs around longer than a Chamillionaire. (Sorry, Chamillionaire.) The answer is two-fold, both easy: it’s mostly major differences in talent and creativity levels, but it’s also due to knowing your market and who your music is attempting to speak to.

Basically: no one is going to remember who Desiigner was in 2046. “Panda” is a hit now, but I’d be willing to bet my paycheck he doesn’t have another #1 hit…or a #1 album…or much of a career. Sure, his rap in “Panda” has a nice flow, and it’s weirdly had some staying power this year. But who in the world can relate to anything he says (or we’re assuming he says) in “Panda”? There’s a reason why Paul Wall isn’t nationally/internationally relevant at this point in time.

However, they’ll remember Kanye West. It helps that Kanye has extraordinary musical talent unlike any other popular artist currently working, but he really knows how to gain fans and market himself: look at the types of collaborators he brings in for his albums, look at how he decides to release albums, look at how he understands who listens to him and how he decides to market to them. I’m fascinated by his career above all others. Beyonce is the same way, even if I personally have a lot of problems with her music: they both can treat themselves as having ideal life stories for fans to treasure and aspire to, because they made it. But: they didn’t stop after making it. They’ve continued to go in different directions that alienate old fans and gain new ones.

Basically, the long-term staying power comes from that ability to go in different directions, but you’ll notice how self-aware all major artists currently are of their reach and ability to gain new listeners through unusual release strategies, fashion, and basic business/economics principles. That may be a more idealistic and difficult view of it than some would hope, but this seems to be the easiest explanation to me.

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